Godzilla had a message about the atomic age; Rodan featured creatures out of their time, and it raised concerns about what developments in science and exploitation of the earth might unleash. Mothra, well…

“We promise you no one will ever disturb you or your island again.”

— Shin’ichi Chûjô (Hiroshi Koizumi)

Although not as well-loved as the first two1 kaiju monsters, Mothra, in many ways, receives a cinematographically superior debut, and is arguably the best-directed of the original Japanese giant monster movies. Even its nationalist (and some argue, racist) elements bear thoughtful consideration, if one views the film from Japan’s point-of-view in ’61.

Title: Mothra (モスラ / Mosura in Nippon)

Cast, Crew, and Other Info:

Directed by Ishirô Honda

Written by Shinichirô Nakamura, Takehiko Fukunaga, Yoshie Hotta, and Shinichi Sekizawa.

Frankie Sakai as Senichiro ‘Sen-chan’ Fukuda
Hiroshi Koizumi as Dr. Shin’ichi Chûjô
Kyôko Kagawa as Michi Hanamura
Ken Uehara as Dr. Harada
Emi Itô as Shobijin
Yûmi Itô as Shobijin
Jerry Ito as Clark Nelson
Takashi Shimura as News Editor
Tetsu Nakamura as Nelson’s Henchman
Akihiro Tayama as Shinji Chûjô
Obel Wyatt as Dr. Roff

Full Cast and Crew information is available at the imdb.

Premise:

An expedition to a remote island returns with twin Shobijin, faerie-like creatures. When a greedy entrepreneur exploits them, the island’s god comes to their rescue, destroying a couple of cities in the process.

High Points:

Mothra certainly has a strong message about the consequences of human exploitation and mistreatment of nature, the risks of unbounded human ambition. However, we have other themes in this film. If Gojira looked back to the end of the Second World War, Motsura captures the early-sixties feelings of Japan rising, for better and worse. And while many now note that the film’s depiction of the island natives seems racist (though sadly, about typical for Hollywood and Japanese cinema of the era), a deeper current of problematic attitudes concerns the depiction of Japan and the West. It is there, however, that the film becomes most interesting.

The villain hails from Rolisica, a country with a flag and military uniforms reminiscent of Russia, though the main Rolisican villain behaves suspiciously like a stereotypical American, and the Rolisican “New Kirk City” looks like New York City and features English signs. At times, we hear Rolisicans speaking Japanese, English, and a language that might be Russian. The exploiters who bring destruction upon Japan are clearly foreign, and represent both sides of the Cold War, portrayed here as potentially more dangerous to Japan than any giant monster.

Mothra carries a strong suggestion that the influence of the gaijin has harmed Japan, and needs to ended or at least moderated.2 In the film’s defense, we do see some good westerners (again, part of the original film, not parachuted in by American distributors), and the film includes western Christian as well as more traditionally Japanese iconography among the representations of deeper spiritual values.4

The conclusion indicates the need to return to spiritual values to temper those promoted by pure expansionist capitalism or Soviet communism.

Oh, yeah. And the big moth smashes things.

Low Points:

The population and the military accept the existence of and the threat posed by Mothra very readily, before they have any clear evidence. This makes more sense after the next film, which folds Rodan, Godzilla, and Mothra into one kaiju-verse. However, there’s nothing in Mothra to indicate the Japanese have any prior experience that would make (initially) unsupported allegations of a giant monster a credible threat.

The Scores:

Originality: 3/6 Mothra wasn’t the first kaiju movie, and it had its origins in a serialized novel. The destructive sequences certainly would have been familiar to anyone who had watched any of the previous three Toho giant monster films. Furthermore, her debut features more than a few echoes of King Kong. Nevertheless, a film about gigantic lepidopteron that defend an exploited island and a pair of psychic faeries in a film that comments on geopolitics has to earn points for originality.

Mothra has some other characteristics that make it unusual:

Perhaps to address the foreign distributors’ tendency to reedit scenes and shove in gratuitous Caucasian actors, this film provides a few Caucasian characters in the original film, and has them speak subtitled English. In a possibly related development, this film, of all the original Toho monster movies, features the fewest alterations by the international distributors.

Finally, Mothra has a kickass theme song.3

Effects: 4/6 Toho’s miniature work continued to improve. And while Mothra may not measure up to the standard set by contemporary effects, her physiognomy at least prevents her from resembling a guy in a rubber suit.

The “death ray” effects have been animated. This looks cheesy, but it was standard at the time (think Forbidden Planet and the original Star Trek).

Acting: 4/6 The acting remains rather broad (especially the comedy), but this film actually gives us more developed human characters than the previous films in the genre. Japanese singing sensations the Peanuts show considerable charm as the Shōbijin.

Story: 5/6

Production: 5/6 The film features surreal and often beautiful imagery: real and imagined flights of the Shobijin, Mothra undergoing metamorphosis at a downed tower.

Emotional Response: 4/6 If you can accept the silliness that goes along with the premise and the mothballs that go with its age, you will find this film entertaining.

Overall: 5/6 Japan’s daikaiju do not have the presence in western pop culture they once had, and Mosura has always received less airplay than her reptilian associates. Nevertheless, this ranks among the best of Toho’s originals.

In total, Mothra receives 30/42.

Notes

1. I’m thinking of Gozilla and Rodan as the first two, though this is, strictly speaking, inaccurate. Half Human followed Gozilla, but it is rarely shown, and was never folded into continuity with the other movies. The second Godzilla film pits the Big G against a monster called Anguirus. Both Half-Human and Anguirus predate Rodan and Mothra.

2. We also see the destruction of the “New Kirk Motor Bilding” [sic], western automaker, by Mothra. Prescient commentary on Toho’s part—or just typical monster movie mayhem?

3. For years, the web has been home to a semi-serious Church of Mothra site.

4. The Mothra song may be heard below, sung in various films, in a subtitled pop remix, and by a couple of fangirls at a Con: